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Michaela Crimmin | January 2017

14th January 2017

performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): Michaela, you are the founder and co-director of Culture+Conflict, ‘a not-for-profit agency focusing on art produced in, or in response to, conflict and post-conflict situations across the world’. What are the conflicts and art practices you have been focusing on lately? As curator, academic and director, how do you think the notion of border has been changing in our contemporary world?

Michaela Crimmin: International conflict itself, and especially now, has no borders. Try and pinpoint a beginning or end to a particular conflict present or past, and you soon are thrown across time and space. Allegiances shift as much now as they did in the World Wars. In acknowledgement of these realities and in the interest of neither corralling artists nor simplifying the subject of war, Conflict+Culture has preferred to intersect with places, themes, and questions that address the subject of conflict from many points of entry. Our first event, at the Free Word Centre in central London, took Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street as its context, a booksellers’ market that had been hit by a car bomb some four years before our event. This attempt at destroying a shared intellectual space had inspired a play, music, and responses from visual artists and these were represented during the course of the evening. Since then we have variously addressed other geographical locations, examined subjects such as the use of satire in addressing war, and taken the debate to a variety of venues including Amnesty International, the Imperial War Museum, the South Bank Centre, and the House of Lords, as well as to arts organisations including the ICA (the Institute of Contemporary Arts) and Delfina Foundation. At Delfina Omar Kholeif, who we had invited to chair a panel discussion, framed the debate by asking whether art’s independence was not increasingly being subsumed by politics. In his briefing note to the panel members he wrote “I hope that this session will form/create a discursive discussion for us to share and exchange ideas about the way that contemporary culture is presented, mediated, distanciated, nurtured, annihilated, re-articulated, appropriated, dissolved and constructed”. While the event at Delfina was concerned specifically with Egypt, Omar’s brief continues to be an apt lodestar for events that followed where the debate has centred on countries including Palestine, Northern Ireland and Iraq, countries where the UK has been directly involved in the drawing of borders and the conflicts that have and are taking place.

There are obvious reasons to question this strategy, including working with artists from a range of different heritages with different methodologies and interests. For the time being we are nevertheless comfortable with the fact that experiences, questions, and challenges that occur under the broad heading of ‘conflict’ provide an easily shared basis for sustained and we hope incremental exchange and debate.

In the second part of your question you ask whether I see a change in the notion of border. To begin with borders are a shared reality. The writer Frances Stonor Saunders wrote a fascinating article for the London Review of Books in March of last year [1] (the prompt for us to invite her to speak at our recent series of ‘Promised Land’ events). In this she references Günter Grass’s Oskar from the The Tin Drum and writes “there is only one way into this life, and one way out of it. Everything that happens in between – all the thresholds we cross and recross, all the ‘decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse’ – is bordered by this unbiddable truth. What we hope for is safe passage between these two fixed boundaries, to be able to make something of the experience of being alive before we are required to stop being alive. There’s no negotiating birth or death. What we have is the journey.” It goes without saying that some people’s journeys, involving crossing many borders of various kinds, are a hell of a lot easier than others. However now in the UK we are being jolted into a prospect of not being able to travel quite so freely across certain countries’ borders that we have probably taken for granted all our lives. Having been fed the heady concept of ‘globalisation’ – given the money, the ‘right’ passport and ownership of the right technology – and having been accustomed to an unprecedented ease of communication, we in the West are perhaps waking up. There is a shuddering realisation that cyber walls are more porous than we had presumed; that drones might rather easily dodge a scrambled military aircraft; to say nothing of the nuclear threat that we have somehow buried at the back of our minds since the end of the Cold War. We know from Chernobyl that nuclear fallout is impossible to contain within a particular region. Horrifying also are the binaries between belief systems and cultures that have resurfaced over recent years, creating divisions that can seem as impenetrable as the border controls, wire, bricks and cement between countries.

As a child I loved crossing country borders, adding another stamp to my passport, the palpable excitement of stepping into a new territory, going forwards. I have now come to loathe them – real borders, borders between religions, and borders between ethnicities – they are hateful things. Every time a border has been drawn or redrawn, there have been devastating consequences. But as a curator addressing conflict, borders are inevitably a subject to come back to time and again, a fascinating subject and one that we cannot, should not, ignore.

performingborders (Alessandra): In the last two months you have been co-curating with the Goethe-Institut London ‘Promised Land’: two events addressing the notions of Europe and the clash between its vision as a project of freedom and the reality of Fortress Europe. You have been inviting amazing speakers between academia and the art world and I would like to ask you two questions, one for each of the two events.

performingborders (Alessandra): During the first event ‘Promised Land: panel discussion’ last October you invited artists Hrair Sarkissian and Jonas Staal; writer Frances Stonor Saunders and academic Dr. Bernadette Buckley. What do you think were the main reflections drawn at this event that are important to share with us?

Michaela: Frances Stonor Saunders, following on from her article in the LRB, began by asking “why, in our much-hyped globalised world, (is) the rhetoric of the Promised Land so mercilessly unequal to the reality?” She went on to say “I’m trying to comprehend the world as a question, I’m not sure of any other way”. I could not conceivably do justice to her talk, nor to those of the other speakers, but happily in this case there will be a recording on the ICA website later this year, and a fuller account published of Frances’ talk. Her final question was perhaps the most devastating: “what if heaven and hell are not separate destinations?” Being given a difficult question to ponder I find more interesting than listening to any number of answers. One of the joys of art is that artists and writers of merit spare us all a reductive solution, or dogma of any sort, and instead present new perspectives for an engaged audience to consider.

ICA panel.jpeg

Jonas Stall, Bernadette Buckley, Hair Sarkissian, Frances Stonor Saunders at the ICA, 19.10.2016

At the event at the ICA, Jonas Staal introduced his fearless programme of work where he is testing the concept of ‘union’ alongside an acceptance of difference, be this in Rojava or the Netherlands. A reflection here was on how courageous artists can be and how far from the myth of the artist in a secluded studio. How art and politics are inseparable. Then there was Hrair Sarkissian’s moving study of belonging, and of not belonging, and of searching for identity. This was hugely moving, his images working in parallel to his words, and a reminder that art is privileged in its freedom to legitimately bring a personal account to address the political. Finally I am trying to extract Bernadette Buckley’s deep consideration of the relationship between art and politics from her so we can share this more widely.
Tania Bruguera in a recent talk for BBC Radio 4 [2] ended by saying ‘What can we do? How can we organise? If you remain complacent and passive, you are part of the problem.’

performingborders (Alessandra): On 3rd December you hosted at Central Saint Martins “Promised Land: one-day symposium” with an incredible range of key speakers, artists and academics. Please tell us a bit about the day and the discussions it arises.

Michaela: The Goethe-Institut London invited us to consider Europe with its post-WW2 vision of unity, security and aspiration, and in its present day reality. The reemergence of nationalism in its most unpleasant form, division, the displacement of people, the tightening of borders, the inequality between the wealthy and what the press and the politicians call the rest of us, the ‘ordinary people’. Obviously an enormous subject area and as with the ICA event, one that was never going to make for a neat and tidy account, and quite possibly a miserable occasion considering the events of 2016 and the challenges ahead. Looking at the photographs taken throughout the day by a young artist, Nikola Zelmanovic (a number of which illustrate this piece), confirms my memory that there was actually an extraordinary amount of smiling and laughter. Not least in response to Nina Katchadourian’s Accent Elimination, readily available on her website, and a brilliantly humorous look at cultural stereotypes. Alongside humour, was a display of consummate energy by each of the speakers – artists and curators from Nigeria, from Palestine, Germany, Denmark, Austria as well as the UK rammed the event with every approach imaginable, some very directly talking about borders. We invited a young writer currently studying at the Royal College of Art, Alexandra Quicho, to summarise the day, as attached at the end of this interview.

performingborders (Alessandra):  During  “Promised Land: one-day symposium” artist Emeka Okereke stated that we cannot speak of Europe without talking about its history of colonialism in response to the idea of a European Republic presented by keynote speaker Ulrike Guérot. What do you think this implies in looking at art and conflicts in contemporary Europe?


Copyright: Nikola Zelmanovic, Promised Land event, Emeka Okereke (l) and Ulrik Guerot (r), Central Saint Martins, 03.12.2016

Michaela: Ulrike Guérot’s proposal for a new European Republic sought to respond to the inequalities of past borders and exclusive nation states by re-imagining multi-cultural populations living in new cities and regions with more devolved local governance. Emeka was right, as was a member of the audience, to bring Colonialism directly into the conversation. How can we conceivably talk about the present or the future without looking at cause, and as such Colonialism simply must not be side lined, nor the historical clashes between religions and nations that feed so directly into the present. Ulrike agreed but at that point unfortunately had to leave for an appointment. She subsequently sent the title of an article she had co-written that she said she would have referenced had there been more time (a link to this below). [3]

performingborders (Alessandra): As you know this blog focuses on live art, although with your work we are digressing into how wider art practices are able to tackle broader issues linked to conflicts. I wonder whether in your projects you have been collaborating with live artists and in what way you think live art can contribute to the aim of your work.

Michaela: There are so many artists that we reference, that we enormously respect, artists who can be working in extremely dangerous contexts, many of whom you might categorise under a label of ‘live art’. For example Tania Bruguera who works prominently in the public sphere in Cuba but who has been detained on a number occasions by the police. There is Regina José Galindo from Guatemala, Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal, and Rabih Mroué from Lebanon. Brilliant artists. Live art is of course sometimes the only medium an artist can use because otherwise they and their audiences are too vulnerable. Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, spoke at one of Culture+Conflict events and who has more recently been working with Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina (“If you don’t run in front of the train, then you’re nowhere”). There are artists such as Jelili Atiju in Nigeria, who bring their concerns for human rights and justice into the streets, who encourage participation. This direct engagement with people, in a particular moment of time, has a different and a complementary power and potency to the art that is seen in a gallery.

Finally I must say how much I admire the important work undertaken by the Live Art Development Agency over such a sustained period, and with consummate generosity.

performingborders (Alessandra): Unfortunately conflicts do not seem to end and the year that has just ended has been quite challenging in that respect. Do you have plans to address this in 2017?

Nikolaj shot of Quicksand.jpg

Copyright: Nikolaj Bendix Skyum larsen, still from Quicksand, 2016/17

Michaela: We will most definitely continue to address the relationship between art and conflict not only this year but long after. We have initiated two research residencies at King’s College London in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection. This is a partnership with their amazing archivists Geoffrey Browell and Catherine Sambrook. Palestinian artist Bisan Abu Eisheh has just started exploring the extensive material held, and we will be in conversation at the Mosaic Rooms on Tuesday 22 February to discuss his observations. Jananne Al-Ani, born in Iraq, will also be hosted at King’s and we greatly look forward to their insights from their different cultural perspectives.

We premiered a new work by Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen titled Quicksand, commissioned by the Goethe-Institut London in partnership with Culture+Conflict, which is a sound installation on the subject of reverse migration – Westerners leaving a future UK by the same routes as refugees are using to come to Europe at the moment. The work is being further developed with a visual element and will be shown in an exhibition as part of the Hull UK City of Culture activities this spring. Orna Kazimi, an artist from Afghanistan, continues an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, made possible by funds raised by Culture+Conflict. Plans are in development featuring research, further events, an exhibition and book.

We are especially keen to instigate more conversation between panel and audience and will make this a priority. Equally we would very much like to hear from readers of performingborders who would like us to publicise events and projects, artworks, and activities; and to hearing your views; or who would simply like to be added to our mailing list.

Meanwhile, very best wishes for 2017 to everyone!


Copyright: Nikola Zelmanovic, Promised Land event, Central Saint Martins, 03.12.2016

[1] Frances Stonor Saunders, Where on Earth are you?, London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No. 5, 03.013.2016, pp 7-12

[2] Tania Bruguera, Imagining the New Truth, BBC Radio 4, 05.01.2017

[3] Ulrike Guerot and Robert Menasse, Europe and the Reconstruction of the Free World, Green European Journal

Michaela Crimmin is co-director of Culture+Conflict, a not-for-profit agency working to investigate and amplify the role and value of contemporary art produced in response to international conflict. Activities include research, discursive events, commissions, scholarships and a forthcoming artist’s residency at the conflict related archives at King’s College London. She is an independent curator; teaches on the Royal College of Art’s Curating Contemporary Art MA programme; and is an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins School of Art. Previously Head of Arts at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), a role that included initiating and directing the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre; and the ‘Fourth Plinth’ commissioned artworks, Trafalgar Square, London. Profile on Royal College of Art website  

Summary of the Promised Land symposium at Central Saint Martins, 03 December, 2016

PROMISED LAND, through a series of events, screenings and a commission, is addressing current shifts within European politics, raising debate about the challenges, responsibilities and consequences these present.

In the years immediately following World War II, political union was seen as an antidote to the extreme nationalism that had fuelled the conflict. An integrated Europe promised open markets, freedom of movement, and justice upheld by the European Court. The vision is being threatened by the rise of nationalist movements, the tightening of borders, the proliferation of refugee camps and the displacement of people fleeing conflict, extreme poverty and ecological disaster. Distrust and fear are mounting.

What are the ramifications for art and artists? What insights and ideas are artists bringing? How can we move forward at a time of extreme uncertainty?

‘Promised Land’ began with a screening of Christoph Schlingensief’s Foreigners Out!, a work from 2002 which documented the response to Schlingensief’s shocking installation of a refugee compound outside the Vienna Opera House based on the Big Brother television series. The ensuing public outrage and media fracas served Schlingensief’s goal to reveal the dangerous rhetorical strategies of the Austrian nationalist party.

Seeing the root of Europe’s problems in nationalist thinking, in her keynote Professor Ulrike Guérot spoke in favour of establishing an inclusive, de-territorialised European Republic. Europe can only be fixed, she stipulated, by abolishing the current nation-state paradigm. Disregarding regional nuances including the urban-rural income divide, the EU pits countries against each other based on economic performance. To truly succeed, Europe can no longer be tethered to its market, nor to the political needs of its individual states. Instead, Guérot proposes that sovereignty be returned to its citizens through the creation of a true republic: a political system which allows for equal social, financial, and legal representation, featuring a House of Representatives elected by individuals.

Emeka Okereke, founder of Invisible Borders and the first artist to speak, levelled a critique against the idea of Europe as a bastion of human rights, instead linking the migrant crisis to the “imposed cartographies of colonialism.” Free movement is the key to fundamental rights, Okereke asserted; “without movement, there can be no exchange.” Reflecting on tense or serendipitous encounters from Cameroon to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Okereke considered “how to become, via your presence, an object of useful agitation.”

“We find ourselves at a time where goods, information, and images can move very fast, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for most people to travel and cross borders” noted the artist Tobias Zielony, whose work at the Venice Biennial 2015 depicted migrant activists in Germany. Documenting their marches, protests, and downtime alike, Zielony revealed the diversity of interests that brought migrant groups to Europe — whether they were fleeing homosexual discrimination (punishable by death) in Uganda, or threats to their lives due to political agitation in Sudan.

If Zielony’s photographs aimed to turn the journalistic image of ‘refugees as passive victims’ inside out, Nikolaj Bendix Skykum Larsen’s audio work, commissioned for Promised Land by the Goethe-Institut London and Culture+Conflict, sought to explore refugees’ victimhood more deeply, fictionalising a Western European man’s fraught escape from his country. “I wanted it to be a really unpleasant experience,” said Larsen; by “placing the listener in a horrible situation together with [his] protagonist,” he hoped to invoke Western empathies towards the physical and psychological traumas of those undertaking dangerous journeys by sea.

“In Europe’s Lampedusa(s), there is the projection of an invasion of the European Union that is simply not taking place”, asserted Dr. Giacomo Orsini in his lecture, Promised Land for whom? In his research, he found that 80-90% of those making an unauthorised border crossing into Europe are asylum seekers with a legal right to enter, while the vast majority of people living irregularly in the European Union entered with a regular visa and subsequently overstayed it. “It’s an appealing discourse,” he continued. “The obsession with an imagined invasion misrepresents what actually happens at the border, while there’s scarce interest for empirical data. The EU only hosts 6% of the world’s refugees — and the idea of Europe as a promised land where everyone aspires to come indicates a new Eurocentrism.”

In her lecture on The Art of Migration, Nanna Heidenreich rooted today’s critical migration thinking in the globalisation discourse of the 1990s. “Today’s crisis is not one of migration but of the European project,” said Heidenreich, pointing out that large-scale movements of people across the globe have occurred across history. Migration, she urged, ought not to be considered marginal; instead, it ought to be seen as a movement at the very centre of society.

Heidenreich critiqued the connection between art and activism, seeing the two as deeply interconnected yet ultimately unwilling to negotiate on each other’s terms. Yet the three artists following demonstrated a sensitivity often missed in political discourse about immigration and the right to live where one wishes. Accent Elimination, a three-channel video by Nina Kachadourian, saw the artist and her parents read through a script about the Katchadourians’ origins first in their own accents, and then in each other’s, working with an “accent coach”, With humour it showed the differences in how speech is constructed across cultures (the individuated words of Armenian, versus the American’s near-slurred flow), and how simply by changing an accent stereotypes are undermined.

Artist Bisan Abu Eisheh spoke about his participation in a project in southern Italy, highlighting not only success but the importance of analysing failure — the lack of time and the sudden use of English language, which the participants did not speak, leading to a confusion between the artistic dimensions of the project and the difficult reality. To conclude the day, Phoebe Boswell delivered a narrative about her time at a residency in Gothenburg. “There’s this thing about drawing which allows you to ‘physicalise’ empathy,” she said, clicking through images she had drawn of daily life in this highly segregated Swedish city. In doing so, she described the many minute feelings of affinity and of isolation, referencing James Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village to describe differing registers of alienation — what it means to feel welcomed, versus an outsider, and how those distinctions are often blurred.

“When home can’t be a physical place, it becomes people, your actions, your activities. That can exist anywhere,” she continued. “Through my work, I find ways to go ‘home’. That ‘home’ is definitely not a place, but a feeling of understanding something better.”

Alexandra Quicho, 2016

Featured image credits: © Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, still from Promised Land, 2011

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